Thus Far Unnamed - Urban Fantasy

I'm writing again after a brief hiatus; here's a little urban fantasy I've been working on. Hopefully the level of One Direction fanfic on this site has diminished - I hope you enjoy! :D

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1. The Quarterstaff

In the spirit world, behind an Astral tear overlapping the Quarterstaff, exists a small hive of lesser fire wisps.

They’ll dry pint glasses for almost nothing.

Reaching under the bar, I set the rattling tray of glasses on a black slate shelf that had no rights existing in a pub in Islington. Through the tear I could feel the hot, sulfurous winds of the Astral crisping my skin, and I stooped under the counter to set a white marble pebble down next to the tray, onto which I’d squeezed a droplet of my blood. I drew my hand out quickly, sealing the tear with a twitch of my fingers.

It was a slow night for us. Two practitioners sat in the far corner playing dice, another by the door poring over a tome almost as thick as his head. Outside in the beer garden, a fire mage lit a cigarette with a tiny flame dancing on his finger. Showoff.

I’m the only one minding the pub, as is custom on a Tuesday, and for the most part that entailed pouring drinks and getting lesser beings to dry my glasses for me. The Quarterstaff is a cramped and rustic pub, with thick hazy fumes of juniper and kusum flower weaving through the rafters - and for good reason: The pub is lit exclusively by authentic tallow candles, casting dancing shadows into the many nooks the place has. The acrid scents of the candles can just be picked up amidst the tendrils of incense. A handful of tables, knotted driftwood and oak primarily, scatter the floorboards amidst the regular columns, and the seats are comfortable enough to relax into, without falling asleep entirely. We sell meads, ales, and hard spirits for the wizard who dispels medieval tradition and just wants to get hammered. The chimney is efficient enough to funnel out the smoke from the hearth, but the furniture was well steeped in the rich scent of woodsmoke. For a city pub, it did an excellent job of pretending to be the village tavern.

Tending bar there was steady pay, for relatively little effort. It suited me down to the ground; the crowd was pleasant enough, and it kept me in the loop concerning the latest magical gossip. While a relatively under-the-radar establishment, the skills of our average patron ranged from the ability to produce pretty sparks on command, to the transmutation of iron to gold. We didn’t get a lot of the latter. We get a few normals in here also - who just come along for the aesthetic and the mead. They’re just as rare as the truly skilled, though.

As for me, I’m known in the practitioner’s community as a conjurer: My skill lies in the control of the Astral: the plane of existence that runs alongside the mortal one. It’s a weird place - mostly just unrefined creative space - bizarre structures, disembodied spirits, bottomless pits, that sort of thing. It’s not exactly a holiday destination, and for the most part, my ability doesn’t normally allow for much more than the occasional gimmick - my spectral glass-driers, for example.

Satisfied that the glasses are dry, I squat behind the bar, waving a hand as the air in front of the shelves warps and twists, before settling like ripples on a pond. The tapered rip reveals a shelf of black slate, upon which sat my tray of glasses, completely devoid of moisture. I slide the tray out alongside the marble pebble, wiped clean of my blood. The scent of the Astral begins to seep from the tear: a curious mix of sharp ozone and citrus.

Closing the rift, I set about stacking the glasses. They’re still warm to the touch, and I roll one between my palms as I stand, in time to watch the front door open. A blast of cool night air sucks a portion of the incense out, making the candles sputter in their sockets. The wizard besides the door raises his head, before grumbling and returning to his book.

Fennel is a woman of medium height, placing her about two-thirds of a head shorter than me. She wears a canvas jacket and a crooked smile which reaches her brown eyes. She doesn’t really look like a witch: her nose is slightly sloped instead of long and beaked, her skin is smooth and sprinkled with freckles, not weather-beaten and wrinkled. She’s in her early twenties, a couple of years younger than me, but carries herself with much more confidence than I could muster, one of the practitioners in London who actually used her talents to make money. She’s got a scrape under one eye, presumably from her most recent job, and her hands are stuffed into her pockets. She crosses the floorboards and leans on her elbows over the bar and I, taking a half step right, hold the glass under the tap of her usual mead. Fennel shakes her head, lifting a finger.

“I’m not here to drink, Aiden,” she admits, shifting into one of the bar stools and pulling her satchel into her lap.

“What’s the occasion, then?” I ask, releasing my grip on the lever and setting the glass down under the counter. Fennel offers me another grin.

“I may or may not have found you a job,” she tells me. A mix of intrigue and worry surges through me and I lean against the back shelf of spirits.

“Need I remind you,” I sigh, “that the last job you found me left me with a broken arm and no eyebrows?” Fennel’s eyes sparkle at the memory and she laughs. “This one is different,” she assures me, confidence seeping out of every pore. “All we need is your ritual know-how.”

The word ‘we’ makes me raise an eyebrow. A group job, then. I’d been on a few errands with Fennel before. For the most part, my role was to provide a route through the Astral - a shortcut from A to B. It wasn’t something I made a habit of; all it takes to get lost in the Astral is a wrong turn, a misjudgement of distance, and you’re lost forever. Practitioners like Fennel don’t tend to listen to the dangers, however. All they see is the convenient shortcut. Sporadic trips like the ones she occasionally asked of me were more than my yearly dose of adrenaline.

“What sort of ritual?” I venture cautiously. Fennel shakes her head.

“I don’t know the details either- I was approached this morning. Hiring party asked if I knew a conjurer, I said yes. We’re meeting him at his house, when you’ve finished work.” Fennel relaxes on the stool, studying me with curiosity, waiting to see what I make of her proposition.

“We are, are we?” I scrath at the stubble on my jaw. “You seem awfully sure of that. Maybe I like my limbs unbroken, and my eyebrows where they are.”

Fennel is a transmuter - her talents lay in the manipulation of properties. On a good day, she can turn an apple into glass, or more practically, project a shield the size of a range rover out of thin air, strong enough to stop bullets. She can enchant almost anything to better channel magic, and I had a few bits and pieces made by her in my possession. I think back to the last job I ran with her: a trip to retrieve a branch of Astral pine from one of the blackened, too-tall trees that grow there. I’d been halfway up the tree with a hacksaw when a firestorm had swept through: a swirling cloud of hot wind that singed my eyebrows off, blackened my hair, and knocked me on my arse. We escaped with the branch, and I’d had a difficult time explaining the mysterious burns to the doctor when we were in the clear.

That was six months ago.

“We don’t need your shortcuts this time,” Fennel reassures me. “And cut the act, you could use the money.”

I grimaced; it was true. Magical artifice are expensive, and what couldn’t be bought required expensive equipment to obtain. I’m nowhere near as adventurous as Fennel is, but my own adventures were spread few and far between, given the amount of money I could sink into it. There was a career to be had in conjuring, but only a fool undertakes a hefty ritual without the proper equipment.

“How much money?” I ask, taking the bait. Fennel’s eyes gleam.

“Ten thousand pounds.” My eyebrows shoot up and I think of all the shiny things I could buy with that money.

“The contract would take about a week, depending on how fast we can work. That’s all I know. Interested?”

Her last question hangs in the air, stretching out the relative silence in the pub to a few minutes. The fire crackles merrily and I’ve already made up my mind.

“Okay.”

 

***

 

Fennel waits with me until I have to close up. The few patrons take their leave; for the most part, it’s normal to stay at the Quarterstaff until closing time. I make a short round, collecting up glasses, extinguishing the many candles around the pub. A better mage would’ve used a spell, but I’m old-fashioned.

“Let me get my things,” I tell Fennel, locking the back door and disappearing through the back to collect my jacket. I don’t take much to work with me: my car keys, my wallet and my wand - one of Fennel’s creations. I shrug on my jacket - muddy green canvas much like Fennel’s, and pat down my pockets. Satisfied, I cross back through to the pub, where Fennel stands, tapping one foot, impatient. It takes me a moment to lock up, and we head out onto the street.

We take a taxi to the financial district. Fennel gives the driver an address scrawled on a piece of paper, and we set off into the night, streets thankfully clear. It’s a lengthy trip, and we take the opportunity to catch up. Fennel has been busy, making a name for herself in the arcane community. Her enchanting skills are quite famous in this city - but she insists that she only makes foci for friends. I’m not sure if I believe her.

Our smalltalk is cut short as the cabbie pulls up onto the curb. I offer to pay but Fennel beats me to it, and we step out onto the street. I should’ve brought a warmer jacket. The February air is biting, and the overcast sky teases the idea of snow, but of course won’t deliver. Thankfully, Fennel’s a quick walker, and I soon warm up. We don’t walk far. To my right is Canary Wharf, which can be seen even behind the tallest buildings on the roadside. We stop outside a sleek block of flats, surrounded on all sides by towers of similar size. The sign beside the sliding glass doors reads: Hawthorne Heights. I crane my neck to gaze at the top of the tower, before glancing at Fennel.

“What kind of friends have you been making?” I wonder aloud. She chuckles.

There’s a genuine doorman. I’ve never been into a flat complex with a doorman before, and he gives us a nod as Fennel walks to the lifts, stepping into the closest one and pressing the button for the twenty-third floor. The twenty-third floor has just one door, and Fennel knocks on it three times. We’re waiting for maybe thirty seconds before the door opens.

“Good evening, Miss Chaffe.”

The man behind the door is well below medium height, with auburn hair that has been peppered with grey. His eyes are a clear, sharp blue, and his expression is one of calm. He wears a casual suit jacket, clearly tailored, given his size. He gives a slow nod of his head before turning his gaze to me.

“And you must be Aiden Lysander,” he says. His voice is soft, but the sort of softness that betrays a careful application of strength. It’s evident also in the way he carries himself, and I don’t even have to use my Mage’s Sense to know that he’s a practitioner.

“That’s me,” I confirm, extending a hand for the man to shake. He does not. Drawing my hand back, I arch an eyebrow. “Mister..?”

“Fax,” he responds, beaming. Not a chance it’s his real name. He steps inward, clearing the door. “Come in, come in. The others have arrived.”

Mr Fax’s flat is, in a word, sublime. A handful of smooth pillars scatter the main floor of what is evidently a studio design. Pollock imitations adorn the pillars, and thick white rugs cover the hardwood floors. Floor-to-ceiling windows offer a breathtaking view of the city - a blanket of black scattered with pinpricks of twinkling orange and yellow. Car lights, white and red, rove like marching ants across the cityscape. It’s captivating, and I turn my gaze away to look into the lounge.

Two sofas of white leather sit at right angles to one another, a glass oblong coffee table between them, resting on another white plush rug.

Sat on a sofa each are a man and a woman. Their resemblance to one another is striking: matching short, blond hair, the same straight nose, two sets of dreamy blue eyes. It takes me a moment to realise that I’m looking at twins, both with heads turned to the window, seemingly transfixed on the view that had so ensnared me.

They turn, almost in sync, to look at me and Fennel.

“The conjurer and the transmuter,” Calvin Klein deduces, professional disinterest in his voice.

“Wilson, this is Fennel Chaffe and Aiden Lysander, your teammates for this contract. Aiden, Fennel, this is Wilson and Natalie Hart. Evokers.”

Wilson stands and shakes both of our hands with a firm grip, before turning and sitting beside his sister, leaving the other sofa free for me and Fennel to sit down.

“Anything I can get you?” Fax asks, gesturing to the kitchen. “Tea? Coffee? Something stronger?”

He busies himself making the pair of us both a cup of tea, and we sit. Sprawled on the table are what look like pages torn from a book, and a set of blueprints. I can’t study any of the articles on the table for long before Fax returns, two cups in hand. We accept them with a thanks, and Fax crosses to the other side of the table, his expression suddenly grave.

“To business, then.”

 

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